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A mysterious collector discovers new poems by Sappho

06 February 2014 / 16:02:09  GRReporter
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Sappho is one of the most popular and yet the most enigmatic of the Greek poets. We know her work only by fragments and short excerpts since just one of her poems out of reputed nine volumes has been preserved in its entirety.

The work of the poet from the island of Lesbos is still the subject of intense interest, mostly because of her lyrical outpourings of affection, love, desire and longing. Therefore, the assumption that the two poems recently found in London are probably hers has become global news. One is a complete poem about her brothers and the other an extremely fragmentary piece about unrequited love.

The poems were discovered when an anonymous collector in London showed a piece of papyrus to Professor of Papyrology at Oxford University Dr. Dirk Obbink, who is explicit on the matter: the poems preserved on papyrus from the third century AD are "indubitably" by Sappho.

According to Obbink, this is evidenced not only by the elements of the longer poem that connect it with some of her works in an extremely accurate manner but also by the metre and dialect used in it.

The link is the name of Sappho’s brother, Charaxos, although, for many years, his existence has been questioned because he is not mentioned in any of the fragments of her previously discovered poems.

Herodotus, however, mentions his name in a text that describes a poem by Sappho. In it she tells the story of a love affair between Charaxos and a slave in Egypt. In this particular poem, the poet addresses her readers, seeming to reprimand them for taking Charaxos’ return by ship from a trading trip for granted.

Sappho wrote, "Pray to Hera so that Charaxos may return here, with his ship intact; for the rest let us leave it all to gods, for often calm quickly follows a great storm."

The poem continues with the message that those people whom Zeus chooses to save are truly blessed and "lucky without compare." The poem ends with the hope that another of her brothers, Larichos, might become a man, "freeing us from much anxiety."

According to Professor of Ancient Literature at Oxford University Tim Whitmarsh, the poem could be considered as part of Homer's "Odyssey" and, in particular, as the part in which Penelope patiently waits at home, in Ithaca, the return of Odysseus. His interpretation relates to the fact that Sappho often reworked Homer’s themes in her poems.

The poet of Lesbos, who was born in 630 BC, is famous for her lyrical poems of longing, often directed at women and girls, poems about the bittersweet feeling brought forth by impossible love and the burning feeling of jealousy when you see the object of your attention flirting with someone else.

In her lifetime, Sappho was known and revered for her gentle and passionate poems. The only evidence of her life is also found in her poems. The naming of her brothers, Charaxos and Larichos, is an extremely important contribution to our scarce knowledge of the poet’s life.

The poems by Sappho were lost from the manuscript tradition. They were not collected and preserved by medieval monks as were other ancient texts that have survived to this day. Her poems have been preserved by two main means, namely, through quotation by other authors (often as examples of specific syntactical patterns by ancient grammarians) or through the discovery of fragments written on ancient papyri. The findings, however, continue and researchers hope that more poems preserved in the sands of Egypt will come to light.

Obbink’s article with a transcription of the original poems will be published in the spring of 2014 in the scientific journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.

Tags: SapphoNew poems discoveredCollectorAncient Greek poetIsland of LesbosEgypt
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